American Football: Home sweet Dome

A year after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints are healing New Orleans. By Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online

Another hurricane has hit New Orleans. But this was the kind they have been dreaming of: a tidal surge of fans welcoming their adored NFL Saints home, as the city took its greatest single step towards normality since Katrina's dreadful visitation of 13 months ago.

For millions of armchair fans, it was merely the third Monday night football game of the new season, an institution taken for granted by millions of television viewers, live from the Superdome. But for New Orleans this was a private Super Bowl, five months early.

If 29 August 2005 was the day a city died, 25 September 2006 may go down as the moment it was reborn. For the first time since December 2004, the Saints were back in town. And not only that. One of gridiron's perennially lousy teams celebrated with a victory so convincing that the rest of the season could be pretty special on the field as well as off.

But this week no one was bothering much about that - even after the Saints had thrashed the visiting Atlanta Falcons by 23 points to three, a margin that did not do true justice to their domination on the night, and lifted their 2006 record to a perfect 3-0. Hours before the game, the carnival was in full swing. Back in the aftermath of Katrina, water was lapping at the Superdome. On Monday, five hours before kick-off, another flood was carving a mighty, irresistible path - but this one made of thousands upon thousands of people, decked out in the Saints' gold and black, joyously descending on the 27-storey building that, for better or worse, is the emblem of New Orleans.

Inside, the pre-game festivities were worthy of the Super Bowl. "There is a house in New Orleans... it's called the Super dome," the 70,000 present sang - and for once the sun was truly rising on the city. Then came a thunderous rendering of "Beautiful Day" by U2, aptly fronted by Bono, the musician identified more than any other with coming to the aid of the needy.

New Orleans still has colossal problems. The city's population is only half its pre-Katrina level of 460,000. Vast swathes of it resemble a modern Pompeii. But the Saints are already sold out for the whole regular season. Most important, the Superdome looks like a football arena again.

In those first days after Katrina struck, the place was symbolic of a third world in the richest country on earth, and a metaphor for a semi-obliterated city: a chaotic, fetid stinking hole packed with refugees and with half of its roof torn off. For New Orleans it signified humiliation and despair, for the wider America it was a national badge of shame.

Those memories can never be erased. But the physical wounds can. Inside and out, the stadium looked brand new - as it should after a nearly completed $185m (£98m) face-lift including a new roof, new artificial turf, new concession stands and state-of-the-art scoreboards.

"The Superdome is a sign of hope and progress," Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco, said on Monday. "It rises as a symbol of renewal and progress. We know we can bring our communities back." Another New Orleanian was blunter still. "Katrina was our 9/11, and this building was our twin towers."

On the field, too, things are looking up for one of the NFL's eternal so-rans. The Saints have not made the play-offs since 2000, and are one of three teams (and by far the oldest) never to have played in a Super Bowl or an NFC Championship game.

At one point in their less than stellar history, fans lopped the first letter off their name, turning the Saints into a more fitting "Aints". Last year, when the team were forced to play their home games in San Antonio, the Louisiana state capital of Baton Rouge (and on one occasion in New York) was understandably dismal, ending 3-13.

But last night's rout of Atlanta, who had arrived with a perfect 2-0 record of their own, offers sporting hope as well. The team are unbeaten - and that without a defining contribution thus far from Reggie Bush (already dubbed "Saint Reggie"), the former USC star rated as one of the best college running backs in history who was snapped up by the Saints as their top 2006 draft pick.

Instead New Orleans won with their tightly knitted, speedy defence, smothering every attempted play by Atlanta's highly rated quarterback, Michael Vick. In truth, though, the Falcons were competing against not only the Saints but an evening's manifest destiny as well.

"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a little piece of me that really appreciated what this game meant to this city," the Atlanta head coach Jim Mora said. "But we made it way too easy for the Saints. They played extremely well; we didn't play very well."